For what seemed like decades, dancing had little presence on television. But in 2005, two major network shows combined grooves and moves for the small screen. That year, ABC’s Dancing with the Stars was born along with Fox’s So You Think You Can Dance, the brainchild of Nigel Lythgoe, a veteran TV producer whose credits included the (then) enormously successful American Idol franchise.
The British Lythgoe was also a trained dancer and choreographer, and it was another Brit, producer Simon Fuller, who recognized that a fusion of his talents could make for a riveting reality program of its own. Lythgoe response: that nobody would be interested, but Fuller, he says “goaded me for six months.”
The gamble paid off as SYTYCD became an instant hit and has seen consistent numbers throughout its 10-year, 12-season run, not to mention several Emmy Awards. Its alumni have also seen success — Stephen ‘tWitch’ Boss is now a mentor on the show and can be seen on the big screen in Magic Mike XXL — and it played it part in launching major musical acts, chief among them: Lady Gaga, who made her first televised appearance on SYTYCD.
Today, dance is all over TV, from America’s Best Dance Crew to Live to Dance to Dance Moms and, yes, Dancing with the Stars. “I think we supply DWTS with all of their dancers,” Lythgoe laughs. “We have seven of our dancers this year in the U.S. and five or six of them over in the U.K. Our little dancers are taking over the world of ballroom.”
Looking back on 12 seasons, Lythgoe adds that if the show were to end after this summer (live episodes start July 13), it would be on a high note. “It’s befitting that it feels like a nice time to see it come to an end, if it is going to come to an end this season,” he says. “It’s been a fantastic ten years and I am thrilled to have created it and been a part of it.”
Lythgoe spoke to Billboard about his own personal highlights over 10 years of SYTYCD.
Billboard: Looking back on ten years of dancers, who really surprised you?
Lythgoe: tWitch came three times before he got into the actual competition. Then he was brilliant once he was in there. He was creative and he was fun. Generally, street kids have got much more personality — [like] Cyrus (season 9), Fik-Shun (season 10) and tWitch. They have that charismatic quality to their work, even if they don’t point their toes or straighten their legs, the audience is still magnetized by them and votes for them.
Billboard: How about the trained dancers?
Lythgoe: We have had terrific ballet dancers. Danny Tidwell (season 3), Travis’s brother [Travis Wall, season 2-now a choreographer and mentor this season], was fantastic. Alex Wong from Miami Ballet (season 7) was absolutely an amazing dancer. I am always thrilled that the kids go on this journey and work with some of the top choreographers, then at the end, they have improved tremendously.
Billboard: What are your top moments after ten years?
Lythgoe: First, getting commissioned. Number two: getting our second commission. Also, realizing how America had taken to the choreographers and how all of the sudden people were talking about choreographers’ names. Like Wade Robson, Mia Michaels … That for me was just fabulous. You don’t normally remember a name like Tyce Diorio. Therefore, dance was making an impact and that was thrilling.
Billboard: What else?
Lythgoe: Well, the social impact we were making. People were realizing what dance meant to these kids and how in their communities dance meant so much. We formed the DizzyFeet Foundation to try and help these community programs bring dance into their society. It was the social impact of the program that had a major effect on me.
Billboard: You’ve had such a diverse array of stars on the panel over 12 seasons…
Lythgoe: So many of my heroes — like Debbie Allen, Christina Applegate, Lady Gaga, and people I look up to in the dance world like Rob Marshall and Kenny Ortega. Even Adam Shankman! And Neil Patrick Harris!
Lythgoe: Jason is warming up as the weeks go on. It’s not easy. When you are in a position when you look at other stars [as judges], very few of them knock anybody or say no. A lot of that has to do with their career — they still want people to buy their records — so it helps to be nice to people. At the same time, you have to keep your own integrity. You want to try and help and give them good critiques. And Jason is doing that. It’s tough being an artist and critiquing another artist. That is why Simon Cowell was so good. He wasn’t an artist.
Billboard: And Paula?
Lythgoe: We are not very good with heritage in this country. I remember teaching [American Idol season 3 winner] Fantasia Barrino about a guy called George Gershwin and a song called “Summertime.” She had never heard of it, or of Porgy and Bess. So many kids, unless it was The Beatles, they don’t know anything past 2000, if you’re lucky. So it’s the same with Dance. So many kids don’t realize Paula Abdul’s history. They saw her as somebody they didn’t quite understand on American Idol and that was it. They didn’t know she was a brilliant choreographer.
Billboard: Do you miss anyone on the panel?
Lythgoe: I miss Mary Murphy. She had a wonderful energy. No question about it. But I don’t like four [judges] on the panel.
Billboard: What is the future of the show? Do you really think it’s going to come to an end?
Lythgoe: I think I am. I think it needs somebody younger in there now. I think I have done all I can for it. I will never leave it as an executive producer, but I think it might be nice to have younger people on the panel now. I’ll keep my fingers crossed for it.